Delegation is a necessary survival skill for senior executives. But when executives delegate their discovery-related innovation tasks, the odds of them finding the surprising insights that often spur transformative-growth businesses decrease dramatically.
This thought crossed my mind as I participated in a review session for an interesting new growth business that a large company was considering. The session seemed innocent enough. Senior executives actively participated in the discussion. They made thoughtful comments and helped the team clarify how it should take the idea forward. Not surprisingly, the team members had more questions than answers, but they left with a clear plan to go learn more about the things they didn't know.
After the meeting, it was clear that executives would turn back their attention to "normal" activities, and would expect to hear an update from the team in about 90 days.
Sounds reasonable enough, right? But remember: the most powerful businesses don't result from careful analysis; they emerge, often unexpectedly, from trial-and-error execution (a point made nicely by Roger Martin in his recent blog post). What happens if (when) after the review meeting the team discovers something unexpected that warrants a significant course correction? Strategy can't always be scheduled.
Even worse, the dissociation of leadership from learning decreases the odds that the team will pay attention to the unexpected insight. Consider a remarkable stream of research that Peter Sims describes in his must-read book, Little Bets. The research, conducted by Dr. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, focused on whether people can in fact "make their own luck." Wiseman asked volunteers, who identified themselves as either lucky or unlucky, to count the number of photographs in a newspaper. It took the unlucky group two minutes to complete the task. The lucky group completed it in seconds — because the second page of the newspaper contained a huge message telling the reader that there were 43 images. Wiseman experimented with putting a large notice in the middle of the newspaper that said "Stop counting.Tell the experimenter you have seen this and win £250." The purported "unlucky" people were so focused on the task at hand that they missed the chance at free money.
The insight from Wiseman's work is critical if you are trying to learn about new opportunities or test ideas. When you engage in these kinds of activities you aren't trying to confirm things you already know; you are trying to discover things you didn't expect. But if you delegate the task to someone, they dutifully count the pictures in the newspaper and give you a nice glossy report that answers your question, but misses the point.
Here are three simple rules for senior executives trying to drive transformative innovation efforts:
- Don't make a major decision about any market or customer segment about if you don't have firsthand knowledge or the time to spend at least two days immersing yourself in the market. This isn't just another call to hop on the plane to India. If you are a 60 year-old executive sponsoring a team targeting the youth market, invest the time to develop empathy around the target customer.
- Spend at least one unstructured day a quarter on any idea that you think has the potential to meaningfully impact your business. Join a brainstorming session. Visit a potential customer. Participate in an in-market test.
- Avoid carefully orchestrated review sessions — insist on reviewing the raw data. Pay particular attention to surprises and bad outcomes.
Engaging in these kinds of activities isn't easy inside hierarchical companies. If you're an executive, be mindful of the power of your words, and work hard to be in "learning" instead of "leading" mode.
There's no substitute for first-hand experience. If you are searching for new growth, be very careful about delegating discovery.